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The Cubs are as good as they can be, but the Nationals can get close

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The Cubs are even better than expected, but the Nationals are surprising with a chance to improve.

Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Jason Hammel won't finish the season with an ERA close to Bob Gibson's in 1968. Neither will Gio Gonzalez. Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos won't finish 1-2 in the batting race, and Dexter Fowler won't win the MVP. The Cubs won't score three runs for every run they allow. Probably.

The Cubs probably won't win 125 games. The Nationals probably won't win 114 games.

With that out of the way, we can kick sample size right in the numerator and make low, sustained whistling sounds at just how impressive these starts have been. Both teams have both collectively pitched like Cy Young candidates. Here, pick one:

Pitcher A
232.2 IP
20-6 W-L
2.28 ERA
227 K

Pitcher B
249.1 IP
19-8 W-L
2.35 ERA
238 K

What a race! You have to like the 17 extra innings of Pitcher B, but Pitcher A probably has the rougher park to pitch in. Call it a tie and saw the trophy in half. Pitcher A is the entire Cubs staff in 2016. Pitcher B is the entire Nationals staff. Both teams are off to an absurd start with their pitching.

There are a great many ways both teams can get worse. They can play worse, for one. Their good players can stop being good for no apparent reason, or there could be injuries or poor luck. The season is dark, the season is full of terrors, and every month is a new chance to write a "Whatever happened to ... ?" column.

The Cubs can't play any better. They're winning games at a 125-win pace, which would shatter the modern record. For every part of their team that's going wrong (Jorge Soler's misery, Jason Heyward's living nightmare), there are as many things going remarkably right (Fowler, the gap between ERA and FIP, the bench collectively hitting like George Brett in his prime). I would guess the pitching regresses a bit, the hitting evens out and they still win 100 games or more.

Which is good, because the Cubs also probably don't have a lot of changes to make in the lineup. They're probably expecting better things from Soler, and they're willing to endure some short-term hiccups from Addison Russell in exchange for the long-term rewards. They can also afford to be patient with both. Maybe the Cubs get another outfielder in July, or maybe they shuffle some players in and out of the lineup, but this is probably the team.

The Nationals can get better, though. A lot better. Not in terms of winning 80 percent of their games instead of 70, but in terms of sustainable talent. We saw that hypothetical Cy Young season up there. The flip side is a little more discouraging. Here are the Nationals' offensive ranks in the National League:

NL Rank (out of 15)
Runs per game: 8th
Runs scored: 9th
Batting average: 9th
On-base percentage: 11th
Slugging percentage: 9th
Adjusted OPS: 10th

The red-hot Nationals, who just suffocated a pair of ostensible contenders from Missouri, are an ordinary bunch of hitters, at best. This would be a problem if you (rightfully) believe they can't keep up the 2.35 team ERA. But look at their lineup, position-by-position, and see how replaceable the disappointing hitters are:

C - Wilson Ramos (hitting well, no problems)

1B - Ryan Zimmerman (hitting poorly, big contract, company man)

2B - Daniel Murphy (hitting well, no problems)

SS - Danny Espinosa (hitting poorly, prospect hitting well in Triple-A behind him)

3B - Anthony Rendon (hitting poorly, too much upside to remove)

LF - Jayson Werth (hitting poorly, big contract, old enough to give up on)

CF - Michael Taylor (hitting poorly, overextended fourth outfielder replacing someone hurt)

RF - Bryce Harper (Bryce Harper)

That's five underachieving hitters out of eight, and there are already answers for a couple of them. Trea Turner is hitting well in Triple-A, right down to the impressive BB/K, and it's probably just a matter of service-time shenanigans until he's up to replace Espinosa. Taylor probably isn't this bad, but he's just treading water until Ben Revere is healthy. That's not to say that Revere is an All-Star ready to take the team on his back, but anything is better than what Taylor's given them so far.

That leaves Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman as remaining concerns, with Rendon probably getting an entire season to work through whatever's wrong. That leaves two struggling, expensive veterans, both of whom will be past the wait-and-see tipping point if they continue to struggle through May and June. The ideal solution would be for them to trade for someone who could play either left or first, and hedge their bets while not completely yanking a veteran's job away.

The only problem is that there aren't a lot of OF/1B-types worth a darn on non-contending teams. If they're on a team that might drop out of a race, they're probably building blocks, not trade bait.

Except for Ryan Braun.

But it's too early to sp ....

I mean, that would really be a nice fit. Just an all-around *snnnooock* right into place.

Too early to speculate! The point stands: The Nationals have underperforming hitters, and they have things they can do with them. That will soften the blow when Gio Gonzalez's starts aren't all masterpieces, or when Daniel Murphy's spell wears off. The Cubs are probably great without a chance to get any greater. But the Nationals are probably very good with a chance to become great. They'll need some of their hitters to snap out of it, they'll need to rely on a rookie or two, or they'll need to make a move. Or all of the above.

The Cubs and Nationals are starting a four-game series on Thursday, and the winner of the series will eventually win the National League pennant. If the series is split, there will be a strike, and the World Series will be cancelled. I wish there were some other way, but it's pretty clear that those are the only two possible outcomes. Before the two meet in the NLCS, though, the Nationals can probably make up some of the ground between them. They can improve in a way the Cubs don't need to.